We are writing as postdoc and graduate student parents at Caltech, encouraging you to vote YES in the upcoming union election on January 31 and February 1 at Ramo Auditorium. As academic parents, we deal with a number of challenges balancing our diverse responsibilities as parents, scientists, and colleagues. In our discussions with other parents, we talk about how parenting is often treated as an impediment to our productivity in workplaces. We believe that the choice between a fulfilling career and starting a family is a false one, and that supporting both is possible and necessary for a more inclusive and equitable academic environment. Balancing our workload with our duty as caregivers is difficult. It requires a great deal of planning to structure our time between various commitments, and our schedules are not as flexible; our parental duties will necessarily take precedence. Most academic workplaces do not discuss issues that are unique to parents, and we feel that our challenges are invisible. 

While we hope that our workplaces change to make room for these discussions, we are also dealing with pressing financial difficulties as parents. Caltech postdoc parents pay 30-40% of their salary in fees to childcare (estimated from the Caltech Postdoc Quality of Life Survey, 2018), assuming they can access the limited childcare in Pasadena to begin with. Healthcare premiums with dependents cost between $220 and $707 every month, depending on the choice of plan. Parents who are on exchange visas (J1, for example) not allowed to have the lower-cost PPO insurance, and must pay for the more expensive HMO plan. Caltech-subsidized housing for graduate students and postdocs with children is also very limited, and most families pay Pasadena’s high prices or live much farther from campus. Financial hardship often intersects with barriers to career advancement; postdoc parents may be ineligible for paid parental leave if they receive external fellowships. Demonstrating an ability to win external funding is an important part of academic career advancement, and should not be in conflict with raising a family. It is difficult for postdoc and grad student parents to contemplate a successful career and a secure financial future for themselves and their children.

At universities with unions, collective bargaining has helped to address concerns specific to parents. In the UC system, postdoctoral scholars with dependents pay $58.16 in dependent healthcare premiums monthly. The UC contract also protects the existing flexibility available to parents—an advisor is free to grant their students and postdoc additional paid leave above and beyond what is negotiated in the contract. At Caltech, complex eligibility requirements disqualify many postdocs from receiving child care assistance. Even for those who are eligible, assistance is not guaranteed, and many receive nothing at all or amounts well below the $5000 maximum. Unionized postdoc parents at Columbia University are guaranteed a lump sum of $5000 a year in childcare benefits without any limits to their eligibility. And recently, USC graduate students won a contract that provides a childcare benefit of $1800 per child per semester. In addition, a child care/short term hardship fund was established at USC to help students defray unexpected healthcare costs for their dependents. 

We support forming a union at Caltech because it will provide a strong voice for parents, recognize our challenges, and build strength to improve our working conditions and compensation. While many of us are fortunate to have understanding and caring supervisors, we should not depend on the grace of an individual PI to balance parenting and research. We join academic parents across the country in choosing to collectively bargain for better workplace conditions that guarantee a dignified and respectful existence. 

You can learn more about union-led achievements at other institutions for graduate students, postdocs, and international scholars on the C/GPU website.

Tessa Rusch, Postdoc, HSS
Adrian Beckert, Postdoc, EAS
Avi I. Flamholz, Postdoc, BBE
Nils Vu, Postdoc, PMA
Yuriko Kishi, Graduate Student, BBE
Aaron Johnson, Postdoc, PMA
Amit Vinograd, Postdoc, BBE